If proposed legislation comes to pass, employers may soon face a duty to train individuals in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) just as they would physical first aiders, says Carl Laidler, director of screening programmes, at Health Shield.
A debate in parliament this January centred on a motion to change the 1974 Health & Safety Act via secondary legislation. This idea, initiated by a MHFA England campaign, would mean an employer’s responsibility explicitly covers the mental health as well as the physical health of their employees.
It echoes NHS goals of ‘parity of esteem’. In other words, putting mental and physical health on a level playing field. There’s a long way to go on that score - for society as a whole.
Consider this: We don’t think twice about telling others if we have a cough or a cold. Would we be as open if, say, our workload or other responsibilities were giving us sleepless nights, rendering it difficult to concentrate? Or if we simply felt blue? Probably not.
A study conducted by Bauer Media, co-founders of the MHFA England campaign, found up to 50 percent of employees who take time off for their mental health tell their boss it’s for a different reason – meaning the true cost is hidden.
Mental health is all-inclusive
The fact of the matter is we all have mental health, but we rarely care for it as we do our physical health. When we’re not feeling on top of everything for whatever reason (i.e. anxieties about a relationship, sick relative, financial pressure), access to mental health support and services needs to become as ‘normal’ as seeing a GP/resting/taking a day off work when we’re feeling physically unwell.
This kind of employee support helps business too. A recent study by Accenture showed employees working in an open, supportive culture around mental health were more than twice as likely to love their jobs and were more likely to still be working for the same employer in 12 months’ time.
So, what can employers realistically do to help?
Support not solutions
For a start, you’re not expected to ‘fix’ any issues. We’re all responsible for our own mental health. Rather, employers need to put in place the tools and signposting that ensure a supportive culture.
This should include removal of any traditional barriers – GP, line manager, HR – that, however well-meaning, could make the difference between your people seeking the help they need or not.
For example, look for – and make full use of - ‘care pathway’ support from your existing providers. Health cash plans, private medical insurance and group income protection: they all offer care pathways to varying degrees. These are integrated support networks that may be accessed by your employees whenever and wherever needed.
They might include anything from mindfulness apps and virtual GPs to telephone or face-to-face counselling. All of these are also integrated by some providers into physical health support that considers the mind and body in harmony, such as physio triage and health screening.
Don’t shy away from this stuff. Start with MHFA. Nurture a culture of support and access without barriers. Ensure services are joined up so that they can be tailored to need. Do all this and then assess whether your employees are becoming more inclined to stick around.